When the old family car was like a friend
It was another red light among thousands. Three lanes heading in my direction. I sighed to a stop in the middle one. Then I looked to my left.
There, huffing and snorting like the relic it was, I spied a 1978 Ford station wagon.
The wagon was red over black. Its rear gate was slightly ajar — probably the result of a fender bender. Its hood was slightly bent — maybe the result of a falling branch, or a careless mechanic, or simply lots of years.
I fell in love immediately. Not just with the vehicle, but with the courage of the elderly gent driving it.
I beeped. He looked my way. I made a motion that asked him to roll down his passenger side window. Of course, he had to lean over to do it — no panel of buttons existed in 1978.
“Nice wheels!,” I called out. “How long have you had them?”
“Since this baby rolled off the assembly line,” he replied. Then the light changed and he huffed and snorted along his way.
Good thing I caught a look at his station wagon on this warm summer day, because I might never see one again.
All the major manufacturers have stopped making them. They’ve discovered that SUVs are more popular, and of course, more profitable. They seem to have decided that station wagons are un-hip, un-classy, un-”wind in the hair.” A little too Ozzie and Harriet for the 21st Century.
But I don’t buy that (pun intended). I think station wagons were exceptionally punchy and exceptionally practical. They were cool precisely because they weren’t cool.
As the red-over-black Ford crested a hill and disappeared, I reminisced…
The 1990 light brown Toyota wagon that our family owned became our home on wheels. The “way back” was where the kids always wanted to sit — facing backwards. Very few SUVs — and no cars — could offer that.
When we needed to transport half a soccer team to a game, we could do it quickly and easily. Yes, an SUV has as many seats. But you have to hop way up to get in. That could cost precious seconds when it was raining — which, on soccer days, it always seemed to be doing.
School car pools — no problem. Cleaning up the snack mess that the kids always left behind — easy. Gas mileage — as good as a car. Original cost — only slightly more than a car.
Was our wagon tough to park? It was only nine inches longer than a Toyota sedan. Was it tough to drive? Not at all. Was it difficult to cool or heat? Nope. Was it expensive to insure? Not any more than a car.
The real issue, we discovered across ten years of owning our wagon, was what The Joneses thought.
They were deep into massive Chrysler sedans and exotic Mercedes roadsters. They looked on us and our wagon the way some people look on misguided relatives.
Well, gosh, the Leveys are just like that, y’know. Still putting money into that ugly brown wagon of theirs. Still trying to stop the clock in 1990 when it’s 2000.
Exactly, my friends. If a wagon still runs, why replace it?
Ours ran and ran and ran some more.
Sure, it attracted dents and nicks. Yes, it needed a new suspension after 150,000 miles. The air conditioner worked only about 25 percent of the time by Year Ten.
But it had become part of the family, a little like an old cat.
Even its dowdy looks became a point of pride. I well remember spending one Sunday afternoon in our driveway, with a can of touch-up paint. The front left fender needed a little help.
Could station wagons make a comeback? I truly believe they could.
They can handle almost as much cargo as a pickup truck (with the advantage of offering a roof!). They can pick up an entire family at the airport — no sweat. They would be at least $15,000 cheaper than a mid-sized SUV. And as I saw at that red light, they can last 40 years with the proper combination of determination and maintenance.
If you want to go whole hog, what about a return to the Woodies of the 1940s? Those were station wagons with real wood paneling. Totally distinctive. Totally useless. But totally wonderful.
We finally got rid of Old Brown when it would have cost $4,000 for a new transmission. We sold him to a teenager for $400.
Old Brown is probably in pieces by now, in some junkyard. But how delightful it would be to sigh to a stop at a red light one of these days and see him beside me.
I’d blow him a kiss. I can hope that he’d blow one back.
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.